The Supreme Court of Pakistan on Monday rejected the federation’s plea for a larger bench to hear the 26 petitions calling for the Court Contempt Act 2012 to be struck down, and decided to continue the hearing with the same five-member bench. The Act, which amended the Contempt Act to give immunity to government officials, including the Prime Minister, for not performing actions, and provided for the suspension of court orders passed until the decision of an appeal against them, was widely criticized as being meant to save PM Raja Pervaiz Ashraf from the fate of Mr Gilani, who was convicted of contempt of court for not writing to the Swiss authorities about the cases of corruption against President Zardari, and was not only disqualified from membership of the National Assembly, but also removed from office. The law was passed in double-quick time, so that it would meet the deadline of Raja Pervaiz’s next hearing, at which he was supposed to give a compliance report on the writing of the letter.

The court also did not give Attorney General Irfan Qadir or the federation’s counsel the two-week postponement they both asked for, thus making sure that arguments would continue on Tuesday, when it called on the petitioners’ counsel to wind up arguments. However, on Monday, it became clear that the petitioners wished the court to consider how the new Act interacted with the concept of independence of the judiciary, which is enshrined in the Constitution. One counsel said that the new law violated Articles 175 and 204.

Though the bench was careful not to give an indication of which way it was leaning, Chief Justice Chaudhry did remark that no Act of Parliament could slash the jurisdiction of the judiciary.  Mr Justice Tassadaque Hussain Jilani’s remark, that “We’re more concerned with the administration of justice” is also indicative. As in its other judgments, the touchstone on which this case will be decided will be the Constitution, as well as whether the decision goes towards helping the administration of justice or not. The government must not assume that its refusal to implement court orders will afford it the backing of the court. The writing of the letter to the Swiss authorities is the real issue, and the government must not be so obdurate in its defiance of court orders as to pass legislation in such a hurry.